By Ben Joravsky
I first saw Keith Kreiter in the fall of 1994 at a memorial service in a Baptist church not far from Cabrini-Green. DeAntonio Agee--19-year-old half brother of Arthur Agee, star of the documentary Hoop Dreams--had been shot and killed by someone from a rival gang. Kreiter was in the reviewing line that snaked along the wall from the front to the back of the church. Tall and slender with jet black hair, he stood out among the handful of whites in attendance.
"I'm an agent," he told me outside the church after the service. He said he had a fledgling business and a few clients, most of them minor-league baseball players. He said he'd met the Agees through a mutual friend, then predicted it was only a matter of time before Arthur, with all his charisma and charm, was a star. Kreiter said he wasn't recruiting Arthur as a client, at least not yet; Arthur was then a college senior with a year of playing eligibility, and NCAA rules prohibited agents and athletes from mingling. Kreiter explained that he wasn't the kind of shyster you see in the news who gives all other agents a bad name--he played it by the book. "I'm here to pay my respects," he said, as he slipped me his card. "Strictly as a friend of the family."
He said it all so effortlessly, so smoothly. Yet he was barely 26.
* * *
When Kreiter was growing up in Skokie he didn't dream of playing center field for the Cubs. He wanted to be an agent.
This was in the early 80s, the era of front-page sports negotiations--Reggie Jackson playing one team off against another to get the most Yankee owner George Steinbrenner would pay. An athlete was no longer beholden to the club that originally signed him; he had leverage and could get more money by holding out, forcing a trade, or testing the free market. To a kid like Kreiter the biggest big shots in sports--outside of owners and TV execs--weren't coaches or general managers, but agents. They were the guys with the front-row seats, the locker-room passes, the access to the stars. "I was watching the great agents, and I thought, that's where it's at," says Kreiter. "It seemed perfect for me. I loved sports. I was always good at math--I could balance a checkbook when I was 15 years old. I've always been able to negotiate my way out of anything. I was always a leader, never a follower. I always thought big. And I had a head for business--my father ran a dry-cleaning business on Sheridan Road."
By the time he graduated from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign his career was on its way. "I saw Steve Zucker on ESPN--I think he was negotiating Deion Sanders's deal. I thought, he must need people. Why not me? I called his office daily. I must have called them a dozen times. I told his secretary, "Tell Steve Keith Kreiter's calling.' I'm sure she was thinking, Who's he? I told her, "Tell Steve I can help him.' Well, Steve called back. We got together. He said, "I like your spunk. When can you start?' That was it, I was in."
That was in 1989. Zucker was then the hottest agent in Chicago, a politically connected former criminal-defense lawyer whose specialty had been negotiating plea bargains--sort of a Chicago version of Robert Shapiro. "I liked Keith--I thought he was smart," says Zucker. "I let him sit in on a few things, I let him watch me work. I shared with him my philosophy--negotiate with a smile. How do you get a good contract? Be nice to people, so they end up being your friend."
Zucker, says Kreiter, "taught me the need for a personal touch. If Steve had [Bears owner Mike] McCaskey on the line it was always "Michael this' or "Michael that' and "How's the kids?' Always keep that smile on your face. Never create an enemy. Everyone's your friend."
Over time Kreiter created his own list of dos and don'ts: Clout flows from connections, and connections come from friends. Never make an enemy. Never toss away a card. Always remain upbeat. Never show your anger. Never raise your voice or bang your fist, which only makes you look irrational. Better to remain calm and, if possible, to leave a little something on the table--you don't want to look greedy. The other side may remember that next time around.
After two years with Zucker Kreiter went to work as a producer for radio sports talk-show host Chet Coppick. Kreiter saved the names and numbers of every guest he booked for Coppick, filling a date book with more than 3,000 names, which he has since transferred to a laptop he keeps by his desk.
By 1993 he was ready to break out on his own. He hooked up with Les O'Hara, a financial planner and childhood friend, to form Edge Sports International. They set up shop in the rear of Kreiter's uncle's drafty graphic-arts warehouse in Skokie, taking a couple of cramped cubicles near a bathroom that smelled of industrial soap. Not the most glamorous setting for a young agent with vast ambitions. "But we all have to start somewhere, right?" he says. "Besides, why waste my clients' money on rent?"
O'Hara was to manage the long-term financial investments, and Kreiter was to bring in the clients and set up the deals. Together they'd form a sports-agency machine, packaging clients the way David Falk had packaged Michael Jordan, making them larger than the games they played, negotiating deals for shoes, books, movies, TV shows, speaking engagements--whatever they could get.
There was only one problem--they had no clients. So Kreiter hit the road and the phone, shamelessly exploiting every opportunity. "The key to success is taking a risk," he says. "Some people don't have the guts and the courage to keep at it. They see the boys driving the Saabs and the Beamers and feel that life's passed them by. Well, I see the big boys in the big cars, and I feel I'll pass them by. You keep your eyes open, and when you see an opportunity you go for it--that's how you get ahead."
He made his connection with ESPN sportscaster Brett Haber while talking on the phone at the U.S. Open tennis tournament in New York City. "I looked up and happened to see Haber walk by, and I said, "I gotta go.' I walked right up to him and said, "Hi, Brett. I'm Keith Kreiter.' I gave him my card. He told me he's going to a party at the Hard Rock Cafe that night. I said, "Isn't that something? I'm going to the same party.' I pitched him at that party, and later we closed the deal. Opportunity seen, opportunity taken."
Other opportunities came more circuitously. A friend in Michigan mentioned something about knowing Jackie Kallen, a boxing promoter out of Detroit and the manager of James Toney, super-middleweight champion of the world in the early 90s. "I called Jackie, and she said come on up. So I drove to Detroit, we talked for six hours, and I walked away with Toney's marketing rights. I called Pony [the sports-apparel company]. Maybe they wouldn't take a call from some unknown agent named Keith Kreiter, but they'll listen to the guy who represents James Toney." Nothing came of the call. Kreiter no longer represents Toney, whose career has faded, though he remains good friends, at least in the broader definition of the word, with Kallen.
"Things have a way of coming full circle," Kreiter says. "A few years ago my roommate comes home with these baggy-looking basketball shorts, and I said, Where did you get them? And he told me about some guy named Rodney Jeter." So Kreiter called Jeter. They met for breakfast and Jeter told him his story. He was an army vet from the south side who designed his own line of playground apparel. "I told Keith it was a street look with a street name--Ball'n, which is the term we use for playing basketball. No different than what guys in the suburbs might call hoopin'," Jeter says. "I'd been driving to playgrounds all over the city, selling the jerseys and shorts out of the trunk of my car. And I was tired of that. Through a connection with Magic Johnson I hooked up with Scottie Pippen, which is how I got to outfit the players in Scottie's summertime celebrity game. But I needed a national distributor."
That's where Kreiter's Pony ties came in. "Keith called his folks at Pony, and we eventually signed a three-year deal with them," says Jeter. "They distribute and manufacture for us, and we're in Foot Locker, Champ's, you name it."
What does Kreiter get out of the deal?
"Stock in the company--lots of stock," he says. "Put it this way, if Ball'n ever goes public--and someday it might--my stock will be worth millions."
Kreiter was now spending much of his time on the road, driving from town to town in Iowa, Wisconsin, and Illinois, looking for minor-league baseball talent to sign. "I have a friend named Ted Flora, a former baseball coach for the University of Illinois, who's got a great eye for talent. Ted called me up one time and said, "There's this twentysomething-year-old pitcher, Kenny Grundt. He's a little wild, but he's big and strong, and he's a lefty.' And that's the key, because clubs are always looking for lefties. So we drove down to Clinton, Iowa, to catch the Clinton Giants. I liked what I saw, and I signed Kenny up. That was in 1993. Within a year Kenny's having elbow surgery, and he's out of the game. Bad deal, right? Wrong. Kenny recovered. He signed with Sioux Falls of the Independent League, impressed some scouts, got signed by the [Colorado] Rockies, got farmed out to Asheville, North Carolina, in the single-A league, and within one summer pitched his way to the triple-A level.
"That's when the Red Sox offered him $75,000 to try out for next year's team. They hoped he might be useful as a situational reliever, coming in to face one batter in the mid or late innings. So I called Dick Balderson, GM of the Rockies, and I said, "Dick, the Red Sox just offered us 75.' And he said, "Take it. Good luck. We can't match it.'
"But that's how it works. You go with a hunch, you take a chance. You're not doing it for the up-front money. These kids are 18, 19, 20 years old. They're making $1,900 to $5,000 a month. The agent's take is 5 percent on salary, 20 percent on marketing, even though of course there is no marketing for a minor-leaguer. You're working for the future. Of course when the kid makes it to the 40-man roster all the big agents come out. They let you do the dirty work--and then they're like sharks. You can only hope the kid has some loyalty, and he won't forget who was there at the start. That's how I signed guys like Mark Dalesandro, who's in the Angels organization, and Gary Bennett of the Phillies, and Bobby Morris, who may someday play second base for the Cubs. We'll have four guys in major-league camps this spring."
Despite the roster of ballplayers, Kreiter was still looking for a marquee client. In the summer of 1994, he says, he got a call from a friend. "The guy tells me, "I'd like you to meet the Agee family. I think someone's making a movie about them.' I figure, OK. It can't hurt. So I drove over to the west side, and I met Bo and Sheila Agee, Arthur Agee's parents. I'm looking for a name to put me on the national scene, but, believe me, I don't know it's going to be Arthur Agee. I don't know from Hoop Dreams. I drove up to the Agees' apartment on Pulaski. We talked. I met Arthur. We hit it off. I asked him how he managed to stay away from drugs and gangs when he was growing up. Next thing you know, I turn on my TV and I see Siskel and Ebert going nuts over Hoop Dreams. They say it's the greatest movie of the year, and I'm thinking, "Oh my God. I've got something here.'
"I had to be cautious. Remember, I could not recruit. All of our conversations were strictly informal. I was dealing with Agee only as a friend."
But, man, he was persistent. He went to the funeral, he dropped by the home, he called and took calls from Bo and Sheila Agee almost every day, subtly wooing them and their son. "Keith's a great guy--totally honest," says Bo. "He never pushed things with us. He never tried to, you know, sell us something we didn't need."
Finally, in the winter of 1995, Kreiter's big moment came. "It was right after Arthur had finished his college season. I read in the paper that he's making an appearance at a Rockers game, and I think, "Wait a minute. Who lined this up?' I called Bo, and I called Arthur, and I said, "Guys, now it's time to talk business.' I went to their apartment, and I'm thinking, "This is it. If I don't sign Arthur today I'll lose him.' I mean, there were other agents coming out of the woodwork, and I can only imagine what they were saying about me. "Don't go with him. He's too young and inexperienced.' Or "Don't go with him. You can't trust a white guy.' I looked Arthur in the eyes and said, "Arthur, I don't want to lock you up for five years. If we sign a deal, you can terminate it in 15 days. So, frankly, there's no risk. If I'm a dog, dump me.' Arthur stood up, and he walked around the room. And it's really quiet, and I'm dying, because this is big--this is major, this is my career. And Arthur turned to Bo and Sheila and said, "I'm ready. Let's sign.'
"The first thing I do after that is I call the Trib in order to publicly cement the deal. I called Terry Armour, and I told him, "Terry, I've just signed Arthur Agee. You're getting it first.' And he ran a blurb in his column. I did this for two reasons. Number one, I want the Rockers and everyone else to know that Arthur's serious--you can't get him for free. And number two, I wanted all the other agents to back off. From here on out Arthur Agee's with me."
* * *
By this point Kreiter and O'Hara had added Doug Shabelman, a young lawyer, to their firm, and they represented 30-some clients, having added John Salley of the NBA Toronto Raptors, the rock band Infraction, a few tennis players, an ice-skater, some players in the Canadian Football League, some TV sportscasters. Nobody huge. But the client list was growing, and Kreiter had no doubts that the time would come when he'd be among the richest, most influential agents in the world--on "the list of the 100 most powerful men in sports," he said, sitting in his office one morning. "Power to me is not ego--it's accessibility. Right now the head of talent at ESPN--I call him, he takes my call. Nike, Reebok--they take my calls. But what I'm shooting for is that day when I can pick up that phone and call anyone--owners, commissioners, network executives--and know my call will be taken."
His first appointment that day was Kenny Grundt, who was in to sign his contract with the Red Sox. Grundt, a big, stocky man with a crew cut, had spent five seasons waiting for this moment--for a decent piece of change and an invitation to spring training. He sat in a chair facing Kreiter's desk and read the fine print.
"I guess we should call Dick Balderson [of the Rockies]," Kreiter said, reaching for his phone. He dialed the number and leaned back in his chair. "Dick, Keith Kreiter. How are you? I just want to let you know that Kenny decided to sign with the Red Sox." He said good-bye and hung up.
"That's it?" I said.
"What's there to say?" said Kreiter. "They couldn't come close to meeting Boston's offer."
"But Zucker would have said, "How's the wife, the kids, the family?"'
"These are busy people."
While Grundt read, Kreiter launched into a description of all that he and Arthur Agee had recently accomplished. There was now an Arthur Agee Role Model Foundation. Agee was doing speaking engagements. Come summer he would sponsor a three-on-three basketball tournament, probably in the Loop. "There's a guy in California who wants Arthur to star in a movie," said Kreiter. "He's got a script ready to go."
And of course there was basketball. "The dream continues," said Kreiter, "though things haven't worked out as well as we'd have liked." After four years of college ball, Arthur hadn't been offered a single NBA tryout. He did try out for the Continental Basketball Association's Rockers but didn't make the team. So he signed with a semipro team in Winnipeg. "The season runs through February," said Kreiter. "If he does well we're looking for a call from the CBA. If I didn't think Arthur had a chance I'd tell him to hang it up. But as long as he has a dream and a chance, who am I to say no? In the meantime I'm going to do what I can to make sure that Arthur's financially secure for the rest of his life."
How do I know you're not one of those shysters who steals from his clients? I asked.
He smiled. "Call my clients. Call John Salley, Arthur, Bo, Jamie Woodson [of Infraction], Rodney Jeter."
"What did they say?"
"You're wonderful, you're honest, you're Saint Kreiter."
"There you have it--the best references an agent has are his clients. Our whole business is referrals and contacts. A guy like Kenny here, he tells his friend about me--that's how it works. This is a competitive business, very cutthroat. I was talking to a high draft choice in basketball--never mind his name. He said, "It's between you and three other guys, so you'll have to come on strong.' I said, "What do you mean?' He said, "I got an offer from another agent--$60,000 and a truck.' That was it. I backed away. I mean, is that agent stupid or what? Number one, he has no protection. The client can take your money and take your truck and still sign with someone else. Then what are you going to do--tell the FBI you were double-crossed by a kid you tried to bribe?
"Number two, these things get around. I tell potential clients, "If an agent's going to cheat the system he's putting his character on his sleeve. Later he might cheat you."'
He turned to Grundt. "Everything OK?"
Grundt looked up. "What about an equipment deal?"
"They only deal with you if you make the 40-man roster. Then it's free shoes, gloves, and bats. But I'll call some people and see what we can do."
While Grundt signed the contract, Kreiter picked up his cordless and called a sales rep with the Neumann Glove Company, leaving a message on her answering machine.
After Grundt left it was time to meet with David Dimbert, a computer-software operator who'd offered to create an Arthur Agee page on the World Wide Web. Kreiter picked up his cordless and walked down to the conference room. Dimbert was a skinny guy whose voice rose when he got excited. And he got excited a lot. He was only 28, but he already owned a house in Highland Park. Business was booming. He could barely keep up. "The Internet is the wave of the future," he told Kreiter. "You absolutely owe it to your client to get him a page."
"I have a thought," Kreiter said, stroking his chin as though the idea had just popped into his head. "I think this can work if you defer charges until money comes through."
Dimbert smiled. "Certainly. We're just getting started. If you got revenue coming in we'll take a cut. As for starting it, it's all for nothing."
"Wonderful," said Kreiter. "This could be major."
"You could put a lot of things on his page," said Dimbert. "You could have a bio, a picture, his stats, all the recent articles about him--"
"Excuse me," said Kreiter. "I don't mean to cut you off, but is there any way to get our name, Edge Sports, on this page?"
"I don't see why not."
Kreiter leaned forward. "One of our clients, John Salley, would love to talk to you.
"Sure," said Dimbert.
"He's got his own gear--Funky Undies."
"Is that so?"
"Have him give me a call."
"This is huge."
"I'm sold," said Kreiter.
"It's a pretty easy sell."
"I have to talk to Arthur of course."
"But I don't see him objecting."
"Why would he?"
"I mean, the implications are amazing," said Kreiter, standing up.
"I can see it now. We can put endorsements on our Web page. We can cut the same deal with five vendors at a time--"
"They can put their logos up in the corner," Dimbert added.
"Fantastic," said Kreiter.
They shook hands and left the room laughing.
Back in his office Kreiter acknowledged that despite his enthusiasm, big-time returns were far from guaranteed. "You pitch a dozen deals a day. What works, what flops? No one knows for certain. In this business you never know which deal will make you your million."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photographs by Jon Randolph.